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Use Real World Examples to Teach Sustainability

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions and presentations at multiple InTeGrate workshops.
Tackling real world problems can make sustainability issues more tangible and meaningful to students. Real examples provide concrete applications to knowledge and skills learned in the classroom as they relate to students themselves and society. Real examples also encourage students to be aware of the choices they make and how they fit into a greater societal context.

Real world examples demonstrate the complexity and unpredictability of real issues, and as such, can stimulate critical thinking. They also highlight the need for an inter- and multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. Further, using examples from the real world demonstrates that, oftentimes, there is no perfect solution to a given problem. But, in doing so, gets students thinking about solutions, rather than just focusing on problems.

Pedagogic guidance for teaching using real world examples

Multiple pedagogic strategies can be used to incorporate real examples into the classroom. These include teaching with case studies or with investigative cases, field experiences such as field labs or student research, and using local data and examples to teach about issues. Connecting local examples with global challenges can also be beneficial for expanding the context of larger scale issues (e.g. water quality and quantity could be both a local issue as well as a global issue) or those that are non-local, but may still affect students (e.g. drought in California affects local food prices).

Engaging Students

Real world problems are inherently engaging since they tend to be meaningful and applicable to students' lives, either directly or indirectly (e.g. through the media or social networks). If you're not sure where to begin, the tips below can get you started. These tips were compiled from small group discussions among workshop participants at multiple InTeGrate workshops.

Effective strategies for teaching using real world problems

As discussed above, there are many ways to incorporate examples into the classroom. Exploring case studies, using the local environment and data, and service learning are three popular strategies. Ideas for using case studies are presented below. For a more in-depth look at using the local environment and service learning, including examples for implementing each, see these pages on Using Local Examples and Data and Service Learning.

Case Studies

Case studies provide a context-rich opportunity for students to learn about real problems and to think critically about potential solutions to these problems. For instance, case studies such as Yucca Mountain and La Conchita can be used to evaluate risks with respect to hazards. Instructors can guide student learning through peer reviewed papers, real data, and professional reports as well as media resources, including news articles and videos. General advice and suggestions from InTeGrate workshop participants include:

Opportunities to strengthen the use of real world examples

Utilize the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to real, tangible problems. Below are some ideas to get you started, or see browseable collections of examples:

Materials and Resources for Teaching with Real World Examples

See how other faculty are using real-world examples with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments.
Example Activities
Related Links



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